Skip to body

Museum of Culture and Environment

College of the Sciences
Give to COTS

Follow Us

 flickr icon instagram icon

Creating a Puzzle Room at the Museum

Puzzle Room Video

Social Skin Textiles

the Poetics of Adornment

“The Social Skin” : Textiles and Weaving

Section 5 of "Binding Culture: Living Landscapes and Material Life in Northern Luzon, Philippines

Section 5 subsections:

Overview: The Social Skin

In the indigenous communities of the Cordillera the human body functions as an elaborate canvas in which distinctions of gender, age, rank, and ethnicity are displayed, and through which women’s and men’s social achievements are celebrated. Anthropologist Terence Turner refers to the bodily surface as “the social skin.” Clothing, tattoos, and hairstyles stand between the physical body and wider world; they create differences between persons even as they connect them to one another and to broader communities.

In Northern Luzon, women become master weavers after long apprenticeships with older women. Key motifs, designs, and color patterns are passed down from senior women to young women; over time, an experienced weaver will experiment and develop a distinctive style incorporating the wisdom and inspiration of her teachers.

What is Backstrap Weaving?

Traditional weaving on the Cordillera Central is done on a “backstrap loom.” This is very different from a floor loom, to which “warp” threads are attached to stationary front and rear beams, so that a moving shuttle can lay down “weft” threads to create a pattern.

In backstrap weaving, the weaving process is pared down to the most basic elements—thread, carved sticks, and the human body. The weaver ties her threads to a stationary object like a house post, and lifts up each targeted thread to loop it through the “heddle”—a continuous looped thread that picks up warp threads which will produce the woven pattern. For any single pattern there may be as many as 20-40 separate heddles. The “picking” process can take many hours.
Once the design elements have been set in the heddles, weaving can begin. The  weaver “ties” herself onto the warp threads by fastening a belt around her waist, attaching it to the final “beam” of the backstrap loom. As the weaver leans back, her body creates tension on the warp threads, pulling them taut enough to open the “shed” through which she passes the weft (contained in a shuttle). Pulling up on the next heddle an alternate set of threads are lifted up, the weft passed through, and so continues the process.

For all its apparent simplicity, the backstrap loom demands perfect coordination between the weaver’s body and her sense of connection to the warp threads. One false move, and the warp threads become too loose—causing the whole assemblage to come clattering down!

Ga'Dang Textiles

Weaving and Textiles

Weaving has gradually been adapted in the Highlands over the last several centuries. Before the arrival of woven textiles, many highlanders wore garments made of pounded bark. Some textiles are thought to have great religious and spiritual significance; some woven textiles are believed to ward off dangerous spirits, others are thought be inhabited by beneficial spiritual beings.

Weaving on backstrap looms fastened to house beams, women work in the shade under the house, picking out intricate designs while watching small children. As with their labor in the rice terraces, women “multi-task”—as artists and caregivers—weaving and binding the threads of social connection in the community.

Celebrating Seams!

MANNEQUINS:  Ga’dang male and female garments. (Private Collection)

European garment makers often seek to hide seams on the underside of the garment. In contrast, Cordilleran weavers celebrate seams by making them elaborate. Their backstrap looms produce narrow-width strips of fabric bound together by intricate embroidery using contrasting colors. The practical necessity of the seam is turned into an aesthetic virtue.

Here, both figures wear short jackets reserved for ceremonial occasions in the Ga’dang culture. On both these garments, seams are covered with a finger-woven raised braid, to which beaded tassels are attached. 

On the left, a female figure wears a short women’s jacket (buvuwasi), distinguished from its male counterpart by three rows of tasseled bead pendants at the bodice. Metal bell-shaped cones hanging from the lowest row make a soft jingling sound and catch the light as the woman moves. Her tapis (wrap) is made of three separate horizontal panels, whose seams are celebrated through beautiful embroidery. Again, the observer’s attention is directed to the joins. The ending selvage of the tapis is marked by a woven supplementary floating weft design.

On the right, a male figure wears an indigo blue and black striped cape, or tapet, with tasseled front fringes and intricate embroidery and beading along the front edges. Under the cape is a short sleeved kuton jacket, dense with embroidery, beadwork and braiding.



Binding Families

Textiles help to bind together families. In Ga’dang culture, the groom’s family indicates intent to marry by giving a beaded jacket or wrapper (tapis) to the bride.  Throughout the engagement and wedding process, the two families will continue to exchange textiles, deepening their connections.

ON WALL:  Ga’dang Jacket and tapis. (Private Collection)

Kalinga Ullalim Epic Poem/Chant and the Poetics of Adornment

The Kalinga epic poem/chant, Ullalim tells the story of Banna, the hero who goes searching for his love, Lagunwa, enduring many hardships and tests in the course of his quest.  When they are finally united, the lovers enact a peace pact between their warring villages, achieving long-desired prosperity in the region.

Epic singers traditionally chanted this epic poem over the course of three or four days.  The chanter dressed in his finest garments, just as the hero of the epic adorned himself in his quest for his beloved.  In the words of the Ullalim epic, both the hero and the chanter, dressed in their brilliantly hued clothes, were regaled by the phrase, “How fear-inspiring he now was!”

Kalinga Ullalim epic poem/chant (selection):


Banna iDulawona,
ot, allu, man-ikimma
da kwana’n daliwangga.

Inamminna innigga:
dalidis un nagimpa
ya dulaw sinyayada.
Kaog-ogyat ma sana!

Inamminna insok-oy
tabbak di talimongoy
ya lingoy sititing-oy
Kaog-ogyat ma dioy!

Inamminna insuggagi:
dutdut di kulasisi
kan paloki’n duduli.
Kaog-ogyat ma sadi!


Forthwith arose
Banna of Dulawon,
and then, as usual, he puts on
his own finest apparel.

All of them he put on:
a cap with beads arranged
and a tuft of yellow plumes.
How fear-inspiring he now was!

All of them he let them dangle:
red flowers of the talimongoy plant
and bending-bending ling-oy vines.
How fear-inspiring he then was!

All of them he then tucked in:
greenish feathers of the kulasisi bird
and nacre disks like cicada wings.
How fear-inspiring he then was!

Francisco Billiet and Francis Lambrecht Studies on the Kalinga Ullalim and Ifugao Orthography.  (Baguio City: The Catholic School Press, 1970)


FREE STANDING CASE:  Binding Power — Tapis

Different indigenous communities have developed distinct designs for woven wrap skirts known as tapis. Tapis designs are often inspired by the shapes of animals, plants, insects, and may recall motifs found in tattoos and other contexts. Delicate shell pendants sewn onto the tapis sway when the wearer moves, catching the light, and calling attention to the grace of the dancer.

Tapis like these are reserved for ceremonial occasions. At important rites, women, dressed in beautiful tapis wrapped skirts, will present gifts in small carved wooden bowls, such as the ones displayed in the case. Tapis themselves are at times presented as formal gifts, binding together families and social networks.

Tapis are sewn together from three narrow widths of cloth woven on a backstrap loom (often in contrasting stripes of black, orange or red).  Seams are embroidered and accentuated in contrasting bright colors (usually in yellows, oranges and shades of green).


LEFT WINDOW:  Intimate Objects

Small handmade items, which require a great deal of skill to make, recall patterns seen in larger scale objects. For example, etched designs on the shell earrings are echoed in the men’s hat on the left (worn low on the rear of the head ) and in the etchings on the locust basket at the entrance to the gallery. 

Kattagang (hat), Kalinga. MCE #03-204

Kalinga men often store tobacco supplies underneath this hat. Worn further back on the head, then secured by a tie across the forehead, it has plaited base layer, overlaid with colorfully dyed plant materials sewn into the base layer on the top and sides.
Tangkil (man’s boar tusk bracelet), Ifugao. MCE #2012.01.69

Worn by men when hunting to impart to the hunter the boar’s strength and power. The tusks are lashed together by a plaited rattan braided “join” at the thickest part of the tusks, and at the tips.
Kupit (personal basket), Bontoc. MCE#2012.01.20

Fitted with a shoulder strap, slung across the body, this small curved basket fits neatly under the arm and is used for carrying small personal items including tobacco supplies and valuables. Larger versions can have up to three interior compartments, including a bottom container for cooked rice.

Baruway (shell earrings, usually worn by women), Ga’dang (or Kalinga).  (Personal Collection)

Beads, Kalinga/Ifugao. (Personal Collection) 


Öwes (blanket) Itneg. (Private Collection) 

Divine Horse

The Itneg people of Abra Province use the woven motif of the horse to evoke a divine messenger, who carries the divinity Indadaya from the High Heavens to earth. In many Itneg textiles the god is shown seated in the horse; in this blanket, man and horse are depicted separately.  In sacred ceremonies, a spirit medium may be seated on a man and horse blanket to facilitate communication with the gods.

Jacket and tapis skirt (Ga’dang).  (Private Collection)

This jacket, woven on backstrap looms in the auspicious minat-mata “eye-shaped” diamond twill pattern, is a favored garment among the Ga’dang peoples. This twill fabric, thought to repel a malevolent spirit’s gaze, sewn into a long sleeved jacket, is fastened in front by pairs of buttons looped together by a braided cord.  The ceremonial tapis wrapper is embroidered with a popular floral pattern, and decorated by hanging bead and shell pendants.

Binakol (ceremonial blanket) Tinguian, Abra Province.  (Private Collection)

Such ceremonial blankets generally called binakol were exchanged during ritual occasions, including weddings, feasts and sometimes funerals. Woven on backstrap looms three narrow strips of cloth are joined by elaborate embroidered
stitching in a contrasting color. Supplementary weft designs, usually in white, form complex patterns including alipugpog (whirlwind) or kusikos (whirlpool) that are thought to divert malevolent spirits by occupying them in counting the threads. These kinds of blankets are sometimes hung above the deceased at funerals to protect the family.

Previous Section:  Art of the Skin: Tattooing

Exhibition Sections

    To Bind Together
    Rice and Culture
    Small Prey, Big Baskets
    The Social Skin: Tattooing
    The Social Skin: Weaving

Take the Next Step to Becoming a Wildcat.